Book Review: From Buddha To Jesus, An Insider's View of Buddhism and Christianity
by Venerable Shravasti Dhammika, The Buddhist Channel, Feb 20, 2009
Singapore -- A book on Buddhism has just been published that has apparently created some interest within evangelical Christian circles. The book is called From Buddha to Jesus and the author, Steve Cioccolanti, is of Thai-Western extraction and pastor of a church in Melbourne, Australia. Both in his website and once in his book (p.13) Cioccolanti says he was a Buddhist and thus his book has the subtitle 'An Insiders View of Buddhism and Christianity'.
Cioccolanti claims that his book is an account - not of Buddhist philosophy, the Buddhism of the sacred scriptures - but of Buddhism 'as it is actually lived' (p.13). He is anxious to help Westerns see that Buddhism 'on the ground' differs a great deal from 'real' Buddhism. That may be true, but surely it’s the same with Christianity 'as it is actually lived'. To give but one example. The southern United States, the so-called Bible Belt, has the highest percentage of churchgoers in the USA and some 84% of Christians there describe themselves as being either evangelical or 'born-again.' And yet it has long been and continues to be even today the most racially bigoted part of the US. Blacks and whites don’t mix and never is the South more segregated than on Sunday morning. Blacks and whites will not even worship the same God together and 200 years of fervent churchgoing has not been able to change this sad situation. Buddhism 'as it is actually lived' is sometimes not very inspiring but nor is Christianity.
However, despite the claim that he is only going to examine Buddhism 'as it is actually lived' Cioccolanti fails to keep his word. Throughout his book he describes various popular Thai superstitions, belief or customs and then a few pages later attributes them to the Buddha or says that they are based on canonical teachings. For example, he tells a story (p.144.pp) not found in the Tipitaka, the commentaries or the sub-commentaries and which is either a village folk story or one of his own fabrication (he gives no source). Then a little later (p.149) he discusses this story as if it were the authoritative words of the Buddha. This slight-of-hand enables him to give the impression that Buddhism is a mishmash of confused and contradictory ideas.
Another trick he pulls is to say 'Buddhists believe…' and then describe some Thai misunderstanding of the Dhamma, whereas in fact most of the things he describes are specifically Thai and unknown in other Buddhist lands. For example, he says that according to Buddhism a woman 'can never give food directly into a monk's hands' (p.117). So poor is Cioccolanti's knowledge of Buddhism that he is unaware that this is a custom unique to Thailand and not practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, Bhutan, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea or Japan. It is not a 'Buddhist' teaching, it is a Thai custom. Like many Thais, Cioccolanti labors under the conceit that what's done in Thailand is Buddhism.
The third trick Cioccolanti uses is the old and well-worn one of attributing to your opponent an idea that they don’t hold and then demonstrating that this idea is wrong, foolish or untrue. This is his main strategy. So for example, he insists again and again that Buddhism teaches that you cannot go to heaven/attain enlightenment if you break any of the moral rules, that it is impossible to follow all these rules and that as a result Buddhists live lives of frustration, disappointment and despair and go straight to hell when they die.
To make this sound like an even more hopeless situation he discusses some of the 227 Vinaya rules, sometimes correctly saying that these are for monks and nuns but at other times muddying the water so as to give the impression that lay people are expected to abide by these rules too (p.56;75). He even goes as far as to claim that all the Vinaya rules were incumbent on every Buddhists but because the monks realized that it was impossible for 'commoners' to follow them all they 'have brought it down to 5', i.e. the five Precepts (p.75). This is utter nonsense.
As every monk and all informed lay people know, the Vinaya rules are for the clergy and consist of moral rules, rules of etiquette, for the smooth running of the monastic community and for harmonious communal living. Nowhere did the Buddha suggest that it was only possible to attain enlightenment by following these rules. He taught the exact opposite. For example, he said that the minor Vinaya rules could be changed according to circumstances (Digha Nikaya,II,154) meaning that they are not necessary for salvation. He said that 'even if a monk is not expert in the rules he may still practice in full accordance with the Dhamma, may still practice correctly, may still live by Dhamma, and therefore be one worthy of honor and respect' (Majjhima Nikaya, III,39).
The purpose of all this is not to give a fair and authentic account of Buddhism, but to reinforce evangelical prejudice against Buddhism and hopefully to disillusion Westerners in Buddhism. Cioccolanti hopes that when Westerners know what Buddhism is 'really like' that they will loose interest in it, and perhaps return to the faith of their fathers. As it is, most Western Buddhists are interested in the Dhamma because it is a logical, credible, humane and fulfilling philosophy of life, not because of what the Thais do or don’t do.
If Buddhism is really as nonsensical and confused as Cioccolanti claims, why do so many Westerners leave Christianity and embrace it? The 2006 census showed that the number of Buddhists in Australia had jumped by 107% since 1996 (p.8). Cioccolanti is convinced that it cannot be that Buddhism has anything worthwhile to offer, so he has to explain its attraction some other way. His explanation is that actually Westerners are embracing Buddhism as a reaction against Christianity, particularly against the Christian doctrine of sin (p.14). Being both a Westerner and a Buddhist I find this explanation unconvincing. Based on my own experience and that of my many Western Buddhists friends I would say that the main reasons Westerners reject Christianity are, in order of importance, (1) the contradictions between Christianity and science, (2) logical and ethical problems with the idea of God, (3) Christianity's record of intolerance, (4) perceived Christian hypocrisy, and (5) having had negative experiences with Christians or with churches.
Apparently the recent Hillsong scandal in Australia led to a significant number of people losing their faith or at least have it badly shaken; - not the doctrine of sin, but the sinful behavior of those claiming to have all the answers. Recently released statistics show that in Austria during the last 15 years 370,000 people left the church, 40,500 in 2008 alone, a hemorrhaging that experts attribute to a string of high-profile church scandals, not to the churches' teachings about sin. And why do Westerners look to Buddhism as an alternative? The most commonly mentioned factors are (1) intellectually acceptable doctrines, (2) the emphasis on understanding rather than dogma and credulous belief, (3) Buddhism's generally gentle and tolerant outlook, (4) the self-awareness and inner peace imparted by meditation, and (5) having met a Buddhist who impressed them. Most Western Buddhists, and not only them, are put off by the doctrine of Original Sin and eternal hell, but none I know have ever said that it was a major reason for leaving Christianity.
I perused Steve Cioccolanti's wedsite and noticed that some of his sermons dealt with such subjects as the date of the end of the world, the coming world wars, how to identify the anti-Christ, biblical prophecies and miraculous healings. It seems that he also believes that Satan was responsible for the 911 bombings (p.221) and that a plumber turned evangelist named Smith Wigglesworth raised more than 20 people from the dead (p.157). I think it is fair here to point out that even many sincere Christians wince with embarrassment and roll their eyes upwards when they hear this sort of Christianity being preached.
The truth is that many better-educated Westerners find these and similar evangelical beliefs unconvincing and even laughable. Cioccolanti has a series of DVD's on different religions which I assume are as biased, ill-informed and full of put-downs as his From Buddha to Jesus is. I would say that another reason many people turn to Buddhism is because it's gentle, respectful attitude to other faiths is more in keeping with good-will and tolerance, values that they have come to treasure.
To give the impression of an in-depth and 'insider's' knowledge of Buddhism Cioccolanti frequently uses Pali and Sanskrit terms. This is unfortunate because it immediately demonstrates that he knows very little Buddhism and that he has not even read any reliable secondary sources. A small selection of his garbled Pali will demonstrate what I mean. The Sanskrit root of Buddha is not bud but budh (p.11). He has tukka instead of dukkha (p.49), benja seen instead of panca sila (p.75), anata instead of anatta (p.188), khandas instead of khandha (p.188), antn-na-ta-na vermani instead of adinnadana veramani (p.76) and micha-thi-ti for miccha ditthi (p.202). That these and numerous other spelling mistakes are systemic rather than typographical errors is verified by other supposed Pali words and phrases that are incomprehensible. For example, he says that a-mita-bucha is Pali for 'don’t worship materiality' (p.176), tamma means 'the teaching of morals' (p.197) and that panya-dtagk-charn and pa-ti-sampi-tayarn are Pali-Sanskrit terms (p.201). I showed these phrases to a professor of Pali at Peradeniya University in Sri Lanka and he too was unable to make sense of them. Likewise, the Pali words given on pages 99, 143, 203 and 238 are incomprehensible. On the few occasions when Cioccolanti gets his Pali right he usually misunderstands or mistranslates it. For example, he takes samsara to mean 'reincarnation' (p.12) whereas the actual word for reincarnation is punabhava.
On page 143 Cioccolanti gives the hardly recognizable Pali of the Buddha's last words and then 'translates' them. This is his 'translation.' 'Do not make idols nor worship or bow down to them. Seek the Holy One who is always living. Watch your heart. Don’t be careless, but be ready all the time. Let all of you search for the way to escape your sinful natures, or eternal ruin will come to all of you.' Perhaps the third and fourth sentence could be considered a very loose paraphrase of part of the Buddha's final words, but the rest bears no resemblance to them at all. It looks like Cioccolanti has deliberately fabricated these words to make it appear that the Buddha was pointing to the advent of Jesus. The Buddha's last words can be found at Digha Nikaya,II,156). On page 12 Cioccolanti says that Pali and Sanskrit are 'inextricably intertwined', which gives you some idea of the level of his understanding of the two languages.
Cioccolanti's knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures is even worse than his Pali. Although he often quotes the Bible and always gives the scriptural reference, not one of his supposed sayings of the Buddha is accompanied by a reference to the Buddhist scriptures, or indeed any source, and not one of these supposed sayings is familiar to me.
According to Cioccolanti the Buddha said 'if one is guilty of one sin, one is guilty of all of them' (p.93). I have been studying the Tipitaka for 35 years and I know of nowhere where the Buddha says this or anything like it. 'Buddha taught that these gileads (kilesa, defilements?) were part of the immortal nature of man' (p.52). He taught the exact opposite. 'The mind is pure but it is stained by defilements that come from without' (Anguttara Nikaya,II,94). He also said, 'By defilement of mind beings are defiled; by purification of mind beings are purified' (Samyutta Nikaya,III,151). And of course the Buddha also taught that man does not have an immortal nature. In fact, the doctrine of no immortal self (anatta) is the Buddha's most unique and well-known doctrines - well-known to everyone except Steve Cioccolanti.
He asserts that the Buddha commanded his disciples to abstain from meat (p.114). Wrong again! Indeed, when one of his disciples demanded that vegetarianism be made compulsory the Buddha firmly refused (Vinaya,II,197). 'Sins can never be erased by one's good deeds'. That may be Cioccolanti's idea but it is not the Buddha's; see for example Dhammapada 173 and also Anguttara Nikaya, I,249-52). He claims that the Buddha never denied the existence of God (p.139) and thus must be unfamiliar with Jataka VI,208 where the Buddha unambiguously does so. He quotes the Buddha as saying, 'To worship correctly, you should worship the truth, don’t worship materiality' (p.143) which could be a vague paraphrase of 'Be heirs of my Dhamma, do not be heirs of material things' (Majjhima Nikaya,I,12) but as no reference is given it is impossible to say. And anyway, if it is this passage it is nothing like an accurate translation of it.
Cioccolanti relates several stories concerning the life of the Buddha or which supposedly illustrate aspects of Buddhist doctrine. Again, none of these stories are from the Tipitaka or even from the ancient commentaries and I have never heard of any of them before. I suspect they are Thai religious folk tales. The problem with such material is that it could be used to prove or disprove almost anything. If I were to use Christian apocryphal literature, non-canonical Gospels, Medieval hagiographies and Sicilian religious folk tales to prove that Jesus taught A, B or C Cioccolanti would be the first to cry foul, and rightly so. If I were to relate all the misunderstandings of the Gospel (the Catholics, the Mormons, the Jehovah Witnesses, the Prosperity Gospel, etc) and all the scandals that plague evangelical and Pentecostal churches as examples of Christian belief and practice, Cioccolanti would be incensed, and he would have a right to be. But this is exactly the approach he takes to Buddhism.
There are several places where Ciccolanti relates teachings and parable which are recognizable as being from the Tipitaka, two of these being the Buddha's comparison of people to lotuses and his Parable of the Blind Turtle. Both these teachings are well-known and often feature in popular literature on Buddhism. But it's obvious that Cioccolanti's has never read any of the numerous popular books that contain these teachings, let alone the original. It looks like his only familiarity with them is a confused, third-hand, folk retelling of them. He devotes a whole chapter (p.41-45) to the Buddha's comparison (he incorrectly calls it a 'parable') of different types of people to lotuses and he draws several points from it. Unfortunately, his ignorance of the original invalidates all these points.
The Buddha mentions three types of individuals, not four, and the purpose of the comparison is to highlight the Buddha's compassion in teaching the Dhamma even though most beings have 'much dust in their eyes', not to analyze different psychological types. This is evident from the Buddha's inspiring peon at the end of the comparison, 'Open for them are the gates of the Immortal. Let those who can hear respond with faith' (Majjhima Nikaya,I,169). The famous Parable of the Blind Turtle is of course used to illustrate the idea that human birth is a rare and precious opportunity. Cioccolanti's skewed version of it leads him to think that its moral is 'it's impossible to save yourself from your own sins by trying to keep good rules' (p.141). As with the rest of his book, his ignorance of Buddhist language, literature and philosophy leads him to completely unjustified interpretations.
Cioccolanti says that the Buddhist scriptures are difficult to read and that most Buddhists are unfamiliar with them, both valid points, although he admits that this last point is equally true of Christians (p.226). While this is a sad fact, it is probably understandable given that most people in Buddhist countries were simple rice farmers until recently and many still are. Cioccolanti on the other hand, is a literate, well-educated person who is claiming to have written 'an insider's' account of Buddhism and yet his knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures is abysmal. He claims to have spent 'countless hours…pouring over Buddhist scriptures and translating them' (p.9). I can only say that everything in his book strongly suggests that he does not have even a rudimentary knowledge of Pali, that he would be unable to translate Buddhist scriptures and that he has never even read translations of them.
On page 40 there is a picture of a banyan tree which is incorrectly labeled as a Bodhi tree. The two trees are of course different species, the former being Ficus bengalensis and the later Ficus religiosa and the latter is special to Buddhists, not the former. If the Buddha died in 483 BC (p.45) he could hardly be a contemporary of Socrates (p.125). Mahayana did not emerge 'in China in the 2nd century', it began in India in the 1st century BC (p.162). Buddhism did not arrive in Tibet in the 4th century (p.167) but in the 7th century, a fact that Cioccolanti could have easily found in a children's encyclopedia. These and numerous other minor errors when all put together give the impression of an amateurish, sloppy and unreliable piece of writing. The more serious errors show that Cioccolanti has only the most superficial knowledge of Buddhism. Once again, I cannot list all of these errors because there too many; a random selection will do.
'But beyond the (first five disciples) we have little idea who else may have been able to attain it'; i.e. enlightenment (p.109). Cioccolanti has little idea because he has never read the scriptures. If he had he would know that the first 35 pages of the Vinaya mention more than a thousand people who attained enlightenment - Yasa, Vimala, Subahu, Punnaji, Gavampati, the fifty friends of Yasa, the three Kassapa brothers and their disciples, to mention just a few (Vinaya,I,17, 19, 20, 35).
The Sutta Pitaka likewise names numerous people who became enlightened. How many does Cioccolanti want? 'It is doubtful that the Buddha believed in reincarnation' (p.112). It isn’t 'doubtful', it's an absolute certainty that he did. 'The Buddha's prophecies of the Maitreya are scattered in many places' (p.144). The Buddha made one and only one reference to Maitreya (Digha Nikaya,III,76). According to Cioccolanti, someone is claiming that this prophecy has been 'ripped out' of the Thai Tipitaka, a rumor that he says he 'cannot confirm or deny.' Peddling unconfirmed rumors is no way to write seriously on any subject. And had he wanted to find out the truth of this matter he could have easily done so. A full set of the Thai Tipitaka can be found in every temple in Thailand and each of the several Thai temples in Melbourne where Cioccolanti lives also has a set. All he had to do was look at the Royal Thai Edition, Vol.11, Suttantapitaka, Tatiyo Bhago Patikavaggo page 83-85 and he would have found the prophecy still there.
The Tipitaka contains 32 books, not 45 (p.175), although Cioccolanti is probably confusing the number of volumes in the Thai edition of the Tipitaka with the number of books in it. This is equivalent to confusing the one volume of the Bible with all the books it contains. The Abhidhamma does not attempt 'to explain, reword and reorganize' stories (p.176) simply because it contains no stories. It's surprising that Cioccolanti didn’t notice this during the 'countless hours' he spent 'pouring over Buddhist texts and translating them' (p.9). 'Nearly all…Buddhists who believe in reincarnation desire to come back in the next life with whiter skins…' (112). I lived in Sri Lanka for 20 years, studying and later teaching Buddhism and I count amongst my many Sinhalese friends simple villagers, middle class people, monks and university professors and I have never heard anyone ever express such an idea. Likewise, I have taught Buddhism in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and India and I have never heard this idea mentioned there either. '(O)nly by perfect obedience could (sic) you escape karma and reach nirvana' (p.56).
Every informed Buddhist knows that the third of the ten Fetters is the false belief that performing rituals or following moral rules (sila vata paramasa) will lead to enlightenment (Anguttara Nikaya,III,377). The whole thrust of the Buddha's teachings is that we are liberated by wisdom, not by adhering to rules. 'Buddhism and Christianity teach we are sinners from the day we are born' (p.51). Buddhism teaches no such thing. 'All of the rules (in Buddhism) deal only with the flesh' (p.54). Really? What about Right Thought, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration?
The Buddha says that following the first Precept means that one 'abstains from killing, lays aside the stick and the sword and lives with care, kindness and compassion for all living creatures' (Digha Nikaya,I,4). Surely care, kindness and compassion are psychological states, inner qualities, not 'of the flesh.' 'You're not a vegetarian? You're done for…This is according to the Buddha, not Jesus' (p.94). It's according to Steve Cioccolanti, not the Buddha. 'In Buddhism, if you want to escape the cycle of suffering and go to Heaven, the qualification is that you become a Buddha' (p.61). Here we see Cioccolanti confusion of heaven with Nirvana and his ignorance of enlightened saints (arahats). A Buddha does not go to heaven, he attains enlightenment (Nirvana) and saints, who are not Buddhas, can also attain enlightenment. And in contrast to Christianity, Buddhism says that any virtuous person can go to heaven.
Even when Cioccolanti diverts his attention from Buddhism to his own field, Christianity, he shows himself as not particularly well-informed. He quotes what he says are 'the last words of Jesus' (p.227). My Bible, the New International Version, 1986, must be different from the one he reads because it gives Jesus' last words at Matthew 27,46; Mark 15,37; Luke 23,46 and John 19,30, and they are different from the ones he quotes. He says that Martin Luther protested against 'the idea that the Pope was infallible' (p.11). But the issue of papal infallibility is not mentioned in any of Luther's 95 Theses and did not become a doctrine of the Church until 1870. Cioccolanti says, 'Unlike the Bible, the Tipitaka has undergone many major revisions' (p.179), although he gives no examples of this because he doesn’t know of any. I am surprised that he is unaware that several passages have been removed from the Lord's Prayer (Luke 11,2-5) making it somewhat different from how I used to say it at Sunday School and in church.
He apparently also does not know that most Bibles today have a note at the end of the Gospel of Mark saying that, 'The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16, 9-20', meaning that this whole section was added to the Bible at a later time. He must have also failed to notice that quite a few verses have been deleted from the text of the Bible, e.g. verse 28 from chapter 15 of Mark and verses 44 and 46 from chapter 9. He says that 'no one is sinless except Jesus' (p.142) which contradicts Jesus' own assessment of himself. When someone called him 'good teacher' he replied, 'Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone (Luke 18,19). He claims that all the worlds' languages have their origin in Babylon, a theory that was discredited nearly two centuries ago and which no linguists accept.
In several places Cioccolanti relates an alleged incident from recent Buddhist history (p.215; 237-240). The details of this incident are not entirely clear to me as Cioccolanti's English is rather poor but if I read him correctly this is his claim. Just before the Sixth Buddhist Council in 1954-6 a Thai monk named Tongsuk Siriruk was given permission to copy out the whole Tipitaka and his copy was later verified to be complete and authentic by his village head man on 13th October 1954 (Wow! No doubt this villager was a leading authority on Pali and Tipitaka textural history and spent the months that would be necessary carefully comparing Tongsuk Siriruk's copy with the standard texts).
When the Sixth Council edition of the Tipitaka was published it was found to be different from Tongsuk Siriruk's version. All the parts that sounded 'Christian' and which prophesized the coming of a messiah 'with scars on His hands, feet and side' had been surreptitiously removed. Naturally, Tongsuk Siriruk was astonished by this and converted to Christianity. Even if this story is true, and to me it's on a par with the one about Satan bombing the Twin Towers, it would be of no consequence. Copies of the Tipitaka in Cambodian, Thai, Burmese and Sinhala scripts dating from long before, sometimes centuries before, the 1954-6 council are housed in the great manuscript collections of the Pali Text Society in England and in various university libraries around the world. All these manuscripts show that the Fifth Council edition of the Tipitaka, the PTS edition, the Simon Hewavitana edition, the Buddha Jayanti edition, the Nava Nalanda edition, the Royal Thai edition, etc, are all the same, except for minor scribal errors. The claim that parts of the Tipitaka were removed during the Sixth Council is completely bogus and can very easily be shown to be false.
In chapter 16 Cioccolanti turns his attention to reincarnation (i.e. rebirth) and presents what he considers to be strong evidence against it. He asks, 'Why can't babies speak the language of their former life?' This is a reasonable question and although I don’t know the answer I will hazard a guess. It's possible that memories, although not all, are imprinted on the brain (some recent research points in this direction) and so when a person dies and gets a new body and thus a new brain the old memories are absent.
Another possibility is that the nine months in the womb, nine months of almost complete sensory deprivation, erases most memories. A third possibility is that the barrage of sensory impingement in a child's first few months simply swamps and erases former memories. Quoting another writer Cioccolanti asks, 'Why does a person need to be under hypnosis…or to be in an altered state on consciousness during meditation in order to have such (past life) memories?' Well of course they don’t need to be. In fact, the research of Prof. Ian Stevenson of Virginia University and others in the field shows that most people who have past life memories do so spontaneously and most often when they are young. Cioccolanti's other objections to rebirth are weak and poorly considered. 'Reincarnation contradicts all observable evidence.'
Perhaps, but I would have thought that virgin births, walking on water, turning water into wine, being dead and then coming back to life and being bodily assumed into heaven were against 'all observable evidence' too. He asks why billions of people in the world, regardless of cultural background, don’t believe it. Good question! But I would like to ask why, if Jesus is really God, billions of Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists, Hindus, Confucianists, Sikhs, Baha'is, animists, freethinkers and atheists as well as millions of former Christians don’t believe it. The answer to this question would probably answer the one Cioccolanti poses. And of course, when you are stuck for an intelligent objection you can always wheel out Satan. Past life memories could be, Cioccolanti contends, 'demon possession'.
At the beginning of From Buddha to Jesus the author promises his readers that he is going to help them better understand Buddhism. His almost complete ignorance of his subject has meant that he has failed to keep this promise. The kindest thing I can say about his book is that it is badly researched, ill-informed, confused, dishonest and hardly worth the paper it is printed on.